Avocado Pit Turned Fake Egg

It was a dark and stormy winter….and my hens were bored. Here in the Pacific Northwest, our hen yards can get pretty mucky and the chickens tend to turn to deviant eating behaviors, like, well, eating their own eggs. There, I said it. Gross! That’s like….oh, never mind. We can’t allow this to happen, because the purpose of backyard chickens is their yummy eggs, a critical part of our family’s mostly vegetarian diet. (Our hens do produce other products for us, like amazing compost.) But no, we won’t be allowin’ them hens to eat their eggers.

I found a great solution to deter an egg-eater, right in my compost bucket: An avocado pit!

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An avocado pit works beautifully as a dummy egg. © Liesl Clark

For years, I’ve used dummy wooden eggs, plastic easter eggs, egg-shaped stones, golf balls and pingpong balls as dummy eggs, to deter the little peckers (egg-eaters) from pecking apart their eggs. Dummy eggs are just that, fake eggs that chickens think are real (think, bird brain.) They peck ’em and realize they can’t break ’em and therefore we stop the deviant eating  disorder in its tracks. Problem solved.

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One of these things is not like the other. © Liesl Clark

So, don’t go and buy fake eggs. Please. Just use an avocado pit in your nest box. Deploy 5 of them if you’d like, and your egg-eater will get frustrated when the avocado pits won’t crack and produce an egg-licious mess in your laying box.

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© Liesl Clark

Enjoy your guacamole knowing your avocado pits can be put to use!

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New use for an avocado pit. © Liesl Clark

In Praise of Dried Grass

Sometimes a thing you need is hiding right there in plain sight. For 8 years we’ve had chickens, 14 girls a-layin’ in a coop my resourceful husband, Pete, made of salvaged materials. For bedding, on the floor of the coop to absorb their droppings, we’ve used pine chips, sold in bales wrapped in plastic. It’s clean and dry and when the bedding becomes soiled with excessive chicken droppings, we shovel it out of the coop, into the compost pile and lay down new chips …  Until we discovered the shredded paper method.

Through our local Buy Nothing group, I now procure shredded paper for use as chicken bedding and it works beautifully in both the coop and the compost, breaking down even faster than the pine chips in the heat of the composter. It’s free, and we make sure we only get shredded paper. No plastic bits please.

The nest boxes require straw for soft egg-laying. Again, for years we’ve used straw sweepings we get for a few dollars at our local feed store. And then I saw what looked like straw laying on the side of our road. Two or 3 times a summer, our island road maintenance crew cuts the tall grass on the roadsides, leaving the “hay” to dry in the sun. It remains there until the next batch of grass is cut and laid on top of it. Last week, we took a basket down the road and filled it with the beautifully dried hay and brought it home for the chickens. Our guinea pig loves the hay, too!  Nothing better than freshly cut and dried nest box material right at the end of the driveway.

My dear friend, Yangin Sherpa, is my inspiration. She spends long summer days in her region of Nepal, Solu Khumbu, hiking up mountainsides in the jungle, searching for tall grasses to cut and then take home to dry in the sun. She later sells the grass to yak and dzopkyo owners for winter feed. She sells 40 kilos of hay (carried on her back) for about $60. Not a bad price for rural Nepal.

For Yangin, seeing the free cut dried grass here by the road, no one collecting it for their animals, is a waste of a great resource. It’s just a few hundred yards off our property, so we’ve collected 2 loads of hay for the coop that should last us through the winter.

We lay it out on our lawn to dry further in the sun and when it’s dry, Yangin separates the hay and knots it into easy-to-grab bundles. We hang it up in our carport in an old hammock (destined for the landfill because it had a hole in it) for easy retrieval.

Yangin knots them into easily transportable bundles. Once again, an age-old technique that has served cultures well for thousands of years, so simple and practical, brings us closer to the rhythms of the natural world around us. Yet we’ve somehow lost this connection and knowledge over the years, no longer utilizing the resources hiding in plain sight.

Putting Chickens To Work As Compost Sifters

All of our animals have jobs that we feel they have to do to contribute toward the success of our little homestead. Sailor, our dog, keeps the deer and raccoons away. The cat, Willa, is our mouser. The bees pollinate our crops and produce honey. The worms produce beautiful fertilizer. Even the guinea pig, Gusteau, provides pellets that can go directly into our garden.

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Sailor the water dog works hard to tree coons and send the deer bounding away from our gardens.

But it’s the chickens who are the true workhorses on our property. Of course, their eggs are a staple in our diet. But we use their chicken yard as a closed loop composting system where our weeds go in, the scratch them up, add their own fertilizer, and we excavate the yard throughout the year for the beautiful fertilized compost they provide. But here’s one more thing they do for us: The produce a perfectly-sifted specialty compost that we can scatter around our lawns and gardens that rivals any commercial compost out there.

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Here’s how it works. Their yard is penned in by 2-inch chicken wire, and it’s placed up on a hill where the backside of the hen yard has a 3-foot slope behind it. The chickens, daily, dig and scratch near the fence, constructing their dust baths and looking for tasty bits to peck at in the yard materials we throw inside.

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As their scratching activity breaks down the organic matter we throw inside their yard, their scratching serves to sift and push the small composted materials through the wire fence, which acts like a sieve. On the outside of the hen yard, we have a slope of pure black, composted and perfectly-sifted humus fertilizer, ready for the gardens and lawns.

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All I have to do is show up with a bucket every few days, and collect the fluffy sifted compost to use around the property. Thank you, girls, for your hard work! We appreciate your efforts and contribution toward making the world’s most beautiful sifted compost there is.

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Chickens Love Pond Algae

We have a pond. Starting in the early spring, the algae on the surface blooms and spreads its bright green color around the pond, stunning us with iridescence. But at mid-point in the summer we decide to slow down that spread of green and harvest the algae for our compost and chickens. This spring we’ve taken some algae earlier, and the chickens are thrilled.

They just love it, and it’s excellent green-matter, apparently full of nitrogen, for the compost.

It’s a good day for the chickens when we feed them algae. At first they hesitate, not so sure about all the tiny “leaves” connected together by tiny filaments. But then the algae is consumed en mass, every last morsel ingested by our egg-layers.

The more we feed our chickens the fruits from our land, the less we spend on the pricey organic soy-free whole grain layer mash they’d otherwise consume. What special foods do your hens consume?

 

Dust to Dust: Closing The Loop With Ceramics

Antique Ceramic Collected at the Beginning of My Ceramics Phase. Photo © Liesl Clark

I have a thing about earthen hand-made ceramics. They’re beguiling. Especially the ones made before the (pottery) wheel, with their human thumb-prints inside a perfect sphere. I’ve been collecting them, along with wheel-thrown pots from exotic locales, for years.

This one's from Kitale, Kenya, on the border with Uganda. I acquired it when I made a film about the mountain elephants there. Photo © Liesl Clark

But more recently, we’ve had some losses with this highly impermanent material. I fully understand why ancient people found ceramics of such use. They were sustainable, made from a renewable resource — the clays of our Earth. So, when one broke or became worn, it wasn’t a big deal. You could always get another.

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But the really old pots, today, are either well-loved or have value. Here’s our story:

It was a dark and stormy night. The wind moaned through the windows, but then a bang happend inside the house that caused us to shudder in our beds. It wasn’t from the tree-branch-driven tumult outside, but from some lurking creature on the inside.

Within seconds the gig was up when we heard a “meow” and I knew our furball had done some terrible deed.

True to her mischievous ways, Willa had knocked a very old pot from one of our ceiling beams. It was a pot that I had brought back from Thailand when I was in my twenties. It was made in Burma and the patterns on it were stunning. Its twin still sits up on a beam, surely tempting our vixen.

Ancient Pots on Wooden Beams. Only Safe Place in the House. Until Willa. Photo © Liesl Clark

Why do I have old clay pots on our beams? Their earthy colors and feminine curves feel like a good combination with the hand-hewn beams from first-growth douglas fir recycled from Seattle’s oldest piers. With children and pets in this house, the 35-foot-high beams were the only place I could think to store the fragile pots out of the way of balls, feet, tails, claws, spills. Who knew that the cat could get up so high and push a pot from its perch?

The Burmese Pot Turned Potshards. Photo © Liesl Clark

Then, a week later, Willa the cat jumped onto a terra cotta elephant we had brought back from Nepal. This lovely strawberry planter was outside on our deck and somehow she managed to smash it to pieces.

Broken Terra Cotta Elephant. Photo © Liesl Clark

Here is it's twin. Photo © Liesl Clark

I’m losing patience with our whiskered she-devil.

She's Not Very Buddha-like. See The Beams Way Up High? Photo @ Liesl Clark

And now I have a new waste stream to deal with: Broken terra cotta pots.

What to do? A couple days of research yielded some decent options:

Drainage: Break up your pots and use as drainage under eaves of your house to encourage draining the rainwater away from the house. You can also break up the pieces to use as drainage in the bottom of large pots. The terra cotta actually absorbs a good amount of water, aiding in the drainage process wicking water away from the source but also absorbing some for plants above if they’re deep inside a pot.

Garden Bed Edging: Partially buried pieces of terra cotta pots can make a nice garden border or edging, or a feature unto itself in your flower bed.

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This dragon, on the edge of a broken pot likes to eat dirt.

Plug Up Holes in Your Chicken Yard: Our chicken yard needs some repair, especially in the places where the chickens have dug holes along the fence. We use broken terra cotta pieces to repair these holes to ensure digging raccoons, mink, and rats don’t get in. Yes, I said rats. They crawl through holes they make and then snuggle up in the shredded paper bedding underneath their nest boxes.

Broken terra cotta pots plug up holes in our chicken yard to keep the vermin away. Photo © Liesl Clark

Buried Pot Whimsy: Half bury a broken pot and add a plant inside to give off the effect of an overturned pot buried over time with your pretty perennial taking over. It’s a cool effect, especially with succulents. I think I’ll half-bury our elephant so it looks like it’s clawing its way out from the depths of the Earth.

Make a Fairy Garden: Broken pots can be reassembled into a little world for miniatures.

Make Ceramic Mosaic Pieces: Potshards and any broken ceramics, like dishes and mugs, can be the ingredients for lovely mosaics used in garden stepping stones, large pots, or even furniture.

Our local mosaic artist, Gillian Allard, collects her ceramics from yard sales, and large rummage sales like our Rotary Auction. She teaches classes on mosaics, so she’s always looking. In addition to ceramics and tiles, Gillian incorporates broken glass, buttons, jewelry and beads into her mosaics. I plan on giving her a broken mirror (cat did that one, too) that she’ll surely use. So, if you have broken ceramics, do find a local mosaic artist to pass them on to. Or, offer them up on your local Buy Nothing group.

Blue Daisy Stepping Stone:  From a broken serving platter and gems purchased at the Rotary Auction. Photo © Gillian Allard

The Zero Waste Institute has in interesting take on ceramics I tend to agree with: They came from the Earth so why not simply return them to earth? They suggest grinding them down to a powder and then reusing that powder to make more ceramics. Makes good sense. We should have community ceramics-grinding mills so we could fully close the loop and make new ceramics from old ones.

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These little ceramic deities sit under one of our apple trees.

I think I’ll do that with my old Burmese pot, unless anyone can give me a better reuse. Dust to dust, right? Send it back to the Earth. And perhaps the kids and I can have a little ceremony when we do it, celebrate the passing of a beautiful hand-made pot made from the earth half way around the Earth as we distribute its dust throughout the forest whose rich green could certainly absorb the minerals and clays used in the old pot.

Chickens and ceramics go well together on our property. Photo © Liesl Clark

A landscaper friend of ours says we should save some of the ground-up clay for our compost bin and gardens. It’s fine, he says, to add it to our soil, especially the sandy and loamy areas.

If you add a little chicken poop to your clay soil, all's well. That's why I like ceramics around my chicken compound. Photo © Liesl Clark

But more importantly, we’ll save a few select pieces of our Burmese pot for our sacred tree, as mementos. Sacred tree? Yes, everyone should have a sacred tree on their land.

Meet our sacred tree, where ceramic offerings are made.  Photo © Liesl Clark

It’s a tree of your choosing that’s important or sacred to you for any reason. Maybe it’s in a central part of your property, at the heart of your land. Or maybe it’s just a cool-looking tree, with all sorts of nooks and crannies for you and your children to place lovely offerings. Our tree is both central (2 trees, a madrona and a douglas fir, growing from one spot) and cool-looking. Sometimes we light butter lamps at its base at night, but mostly we place ancient salegrams and special broken and found ceramics at the base.

The kids love searching for the ceramics throughout the seasons to see how the tree is enveloping into its mass the special deities we’ve planted there.

Ganesh, now enveloped in a douglas fir. Photo © Liesl Clark

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Not too long ago, ceramics were one of the only forms of waste left behind by a community or indeed an entire civilization. My husband, 2 children and I spend a month each year in Nepal filming, exploring remote cliff caves, and searching for the ceramics of an ancient people that were among the first to settle permanently in the Himalaya. Their broken ceramics, tiny shards we find in open fields that would’ve once been their settlements, are the first clue we search for: their trash, among the only remaining evidence of a people long gone. These are undiscovered cultures that thrived in the Himalaya 3,000 years ago, and all that remains are their ceramics, their metal implements, gold and silver funerary masks, their glass and stone beads, wooden coffins, silk, and their bones. That’s it! And their funerary pots, made of a dark clay, are stunning.

3000 year old funerary pots recovered from caves in Mustang, Nepal. Photo © Pete Athans

3000 year old ceramic pots found in the caves of Mustang. Photo © Liesl Clark

 

When you gain an appreciation for mini masks made of earth, you put them everywhere. They connect you with the past and maybe even the future when your clay object will be a part of the earth again.

In Kathmandu, you can still buy yogurt in clay pots. It’s beautiful and delicious yogurt, made and sold in disposable ceramic pots. The idea is that the clays are from the valley, so you can simply dispose of the pots outside your door (which many people do) or with your organics in the compost. I think at one time the pots were reused. These beautiful ceramic pots sure beat plastic. We save them and bring many home along with the little terra cotta wax tea lights that cost pennies each. The little pots replace plastic pots in our children’s playhouses.

Now, after dreaming with me in ceramics, imagine our material culture today and what people will find left behind by us earthlings some 3,000 years from now? I’d like to believe that we’ll clean up all the plastics and return one day to a world where we’d simply find sustainably packaged goods, just like we used to do long before plastics ever existed.

Do you have a ceramics reuse? Please share it with us.

Shredded Paper Chicken Bedding

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It’s simple. Just ask your friends and neighbors for their shredded paper. Don’t buy wood shavings! You really don’t need to. Since shredded paper can’t be recycled in most municipalities, and your friends will be happy to give you theirs. Or, hit up your office, or friends who work in an office setting. All I can say is, this stuff is great as chicken bedding in a coop.

Shredded Paper Bedding Photo © Liesl Clark

When it’s time to clean out your chicken coop. Put the paper and chicken droppings in your compost bin. It’ll get that bin cooking, adding much-needed nitrogen to your organic waste. My compost bins are a red-worm mega-composting colonies. It doesn’t take long for the dropping-laden shredded paper to turn into this:

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And when you take that beautiful compost out to the garden and dress your veggie beds with it, you’ll get this:

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Corn Mache in January. It grows in the early winter here in the Northwest. Great for salads.

What do you use for chicken bedding? Please let us know!

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Chicken Yard = World’s Best Composter

Our chicken yard serves 2 purposes: It’s the playground for our feathered friends but it’s also a great source of beautiful compost for our gardens. We don’t allow our girls to roam free because of the challenge of predators nearby like bald eagles, red tail hawks, raccoons, and mink. We’ve provided the chickens with enough space to run around, have dust baths, and roost. And since we can’t let them roam about the yard, we bring the yard to them!

If you can't free range your yard birds, bring the yard to them. Grass clippings and leaves line our chicken run. Photo © Liesl Clark

This little chicken farming trick is the best trash hack we’ve brought to our hen yard. Much like the practices of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, mimicking natural patterns on a domestic scale, we believe our chickens should work for us in producing the best organic matter for our crops and vice versa.

Full circle: Garden waste --> chicken yard --> garden again. Photo © Liesl Clark

When we mow the lawn, the waste from that effort, the grass clippings, are dumped in there for the girls to munch. When we rake the fall leaves, the waste from that practice is thrown in by the wheelbarrowload. Even our garden clippings and weeds go in the hen run. It’s salad for them. The level of the hen yard, after a few months of this is raised significantly, but the endless scratching, pooping, and pecking breaks the organics down at a remarkably fast rate. And the end-product? After only a few weeks of being in the yard, we have the best compost I’ve ever seen. Waste to gold that’ll go on our veggie beds and back on the lawn to be put back to use again. It’s a truly closed loop practice and I revel in the circles I move in daily around the property, completing this life and food-giving cycle of the natural world.

Perfect chicken-generated compost from our coop yard. Photo © Liesl Clark

By the bucketful, we shovel compost out of the hen zone and into the garden, thankful for the girls’ help in turning our yard and garden back into gold. The little bugs and slugs on the backsides of leaves give them endless treats to find as they scratch for them around their yard. They’re just as excited about getting a load of leaves as they are a bucket of school lunch leftovers or algea from our pond. It reduces our chicken feed expenses, too.

Happy girls in their yard full of yard clippings. Photo © Liesl Clark

 

But probably the greatest benefit to bringing the free range to the hens is the quality of the eggs. Our yolks are a fiery orange, pretty similar to what you’d see on a chart for pastured hens, because we’re bringing the greens and proteins right into their yard. The slugs, bugs, snails, and larvae that come with the deep weedy greens we toss in there. Along with our non-GMO organic soy-free feed, these eggs are as healthy as we can get ’em.

Yet another benefit of this practice is that the rainy season chicken yard mud is offset by the mounds of leaves we throw in there. By providing new leaves on the floor of their yard, the mud-factor is reduced greatly and our eggs therefore don’t get soiled. Anyone in the Pacific Northwest will know what I’m talking about.

Happy feet. No mud in the mud season when you can throw grass and leaves in there. Photo © Liesl Clark

Last spring, our newly-transplanted rhubarb amidst daffodils were as glorious as ever, just popping out, thanks to the girls’ gold.

Compost from the composting chicken yard helping newly transplanted rhubarb. Photo © Liesl Clark

And our winter garden has produced greens for months due to the rich infusion they get from our chicken yard.

Homesteaders' dream garden in the middle of winter, thanks to our composting chick yard. Photo © Liesl Clark

What do you throw in your chicken yard? And do you then take the resulting “waste” out into your garden or compost? Please share in the comments below.